If you happen to find yourself in Los Angeles tonight be sure not to miss the AIA Design Awards Party at LACMA. As the email I recently received noted:
Join us for what will be a joyous celebration of architecture and design in the Los Angeles community.
These award bashes are always well-produced: nice venues, music, projection screens, hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, sumptuous buffet. Plus, who doesn’t like getting awards? Everyone being honored deserves the recognition, respect, and adulation of professional peers. The accomplishments of architects, firms and organizations like the Skid Row Housing Trust should be celebrated and honored. But what if they were honored more publicly?
More after the break.
However, with over 40% of the profession unemployed, on-going layoffs and firms struggling to develop business, not everyone in the architecture community feels like celebrating. In fact, The 40%, as they might collectively be called, probably looks at such lavish parties with a sense of awe and bewilderment. Never before have so many colleagues been forced to cross to the other side and now find themselves with their faces pressed against the glass, looking in at that world they once inhabited. This is the “lost generation” of architects that is now being talked about.
While there may be some glimmers of hope on the horizon (see “5 Encouraging Economic Indicators for the Industry Moving Into 2011”), systemic problems still plague the profession and challenge meaningful recovery. New graduates are pouring out of architecture programs, while unemployed architects are fighting to get back into the profession. It’s not yet clear how a stripped-down, wounded, post-recession architecture industry will take all of these talented people in.
Keeping this troubling context in mind, the AIA could mobilize its resources to help all members of the profession, not just the ones still on the inside. It can still throw parties; after all it is good at this. But parties can be opportunities to reach out to the larger and, thanks to the economy, more diverse architecture community, not to mention the world outside.
From the outsider’s point of view, the cultural, social and political roles of architecture remain unclear. Moreover, though we all like to think we are at the apex of culture and vital to society, architecture is commonly viewed as an expensive luxury, and even unnecessary. Architecture as a profession is also perceived as navel-gazing, self-important, and removed from real concerns. Architects, like artists and philosophers, tend be viewed by the general public as denizens of ivory towers.
With regular admission prices at $100 for AIA members and $150 for non-members, they could have at least made a token gesture to the ever-increasing number of unemployed architects by offering a “donation” tier. You are welcome to come and pay what you can. After all, these now unemployed architects are or were dues-paying members at some point. At one time they helped support the AIA. What is the AIA doing for these people now?
Considering the extremities of the times, rather than holding the usual closed-door, red carpet fête, they could have come up with a novel approach to the awards, one that would have served a broader strategic and economic purpose. Throw the doors open for a change. Given the venue, this was a missed opportunity. The event could have been open to the public and to museum members and patrons. Give outsiders a glimpse behind the velvet ropes of professional practice. The design award boards are on display across the street at the A+D Museum. They should be temporarily on display in a very public area of the LACMA campus. This helps break the myth of exclusivity and elitism. In the long-run, greater public interaction and exposure will help stimulate the profession’s economic recovery.
A number of years ago, at the Geffen Contemporary Museum, architecture students and faculty took over part of the museum to hold a very open and highly-exposed design competition. The roll-up doors of the industrial building were thrown open and museum patrons milled around while the students worked and presented. It was architecture as performance art. Patrons got involved and engaged. The energy took over the entire museum.
Just one more thing. It’s late October. Why isn’t this event being staged as a Halloween ball? Another missed opportunity. Just imagine! Jason Bentley spinning. Fog machines. Bubbling cauldrons of punch. Spider webs. Cocktails with fake eyeballs floating in them. The head of the LA chapter dressed up as Dracula. And the unemployed hordes? They could all come as zombies, of course.
In fact, maybe all the zombies in town should drop by. You all deserve awards just for surviving and persevering. Maybe someone will give you cocktail wiener, crudités and, if you are lucky, a martini…with an eyeball in it.